I recently read two memoirs in a row, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir, by Stanley Hauerwas, and Hitch-22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens.
Aside from the initial letter of their surnames and a predilection for profanity and swagger, Hauerwas and Hitchens are in most ways as dissimilar as it is possible for any two creatures to be.
An Englishman by birth, the journalist Hitchens, now locked in courageous and probably terminal battle with cancer, is a polished Oxonian Trotskyist enfant terrible grown old, a proudly atheistic and unorthodox leftie who has recently became a loyal American citizen. Hauerwas, a redneck Texan who has cheerfully adopted and even embraced a pejorative description of his belief as “sectarian, fideistic and tribalist,” is a theologian who questions the compatibility of Christian and American loyalties.
While I enthusiastically recommend both of these books, I confess an inability to be at all objective about either of them. During the first of the 14 years Hauerwas spent on the theology faculty of Notre Dame, I was an undergraduate with a theology minor. Stanley taught (or tried to teach) me, and I loved his theology courses and soon came to love him, first as a teacher and later as a friend.
Hitchens is my favorite contemporary essayist and a man incapable of writing an uninteresting sentence. However wrong he may be about religious belief, and ungenerous in assessing the motives of religious believers, he is an engaging literary critic, likes to pull a cork and looks forward to the day that Henry Kissinger will be incarcerated. I can’t help but feel some mild alliance.
Both books have been out long enough to receive ample and, for the most part, favorable reviews. This is less an attempt to thicken that list than to consider some remarkable symmetries — large and small — between these autobiographies.
One small one: Hitchens speaks reverentially of his mother while Hauerwas confesses that his mother “was a pain in the ass, but she meant well.”
A larger one: To put the matter as crudely as he does in one of his recent book titles, Hitchens insists that “Religion poisons everything,” a stark claim to which Hauerwas might rejoin “Liberalism enervates anything.”
Hitchens comes by his revulsion for religious belief honestly, as a principled defender of an Enlightenment-born liberalism. Immediately following the murderous events of 9/11, he was justifiably disgusted by the perfunctory assertions that the attacks were a sort of “chickens coming home to roost” consequence of American capitalist imperialism. He knows that people such as the 9/11 murderers have deeper and more frightening motivations.
“I have become vividly aware of a literally lethal challenge from the sort of people who deal in absolute certainty and believe themselves to be actuated and justified by a supreme authority,” he writes. “To have spent so long learning so relatively little and then to be menaced in every aspect of my life by people who already know everything, and who have all the information they need. . . . More depressing still, to see that in the face of this vicious assault so many of the best lack all conviction, hesitating to defend the society that makes their existence possible, while the worst are full to the brim and boiling over with murderous exaltation.”
Whatever Hauerwas may think of the “murderous exaltation” of Islamic suicide bombers, he seems sadly convinced that, at least for the time being, nothing in the contemporary Church lethally challenges, nor even mildly inconveniences, anything in Hitchens’ life, nor in the life of a somnolent, moribund and despairing world. An accommodated religious belief, a world-obliging church, is, for Hauerwas, precisely the problem. Doubtless he, and Christians like him, appeal to and hope to align their lives with the “supreme authority” of the Father of Jesus, but only someone as tone-deaf to belief as Hitchens could mistake such faith for “absolute certainty.”
“What so often makes us liars,” Hauerwas writes, “is not what we do, but the justification we offer for what we do. Our justifications become the way we try to defeat the contingencies of our lives by telling ourselves consoling stories that suggest we have done as well as was possible. . . . I am a Christian because I believe that by so being I have a better chance of living truthfully. I hesitate to put the question of truth in terms of ‘beliefs.’ I have come to think that the challenge confronting Christians is not that we do not believe what we say, though that can be a problem, but that what we say we believe does not seem to make any difference for either the church or the world. Stated differently, my early concerns about the truth of Christian convictions were political—not epistemological.” No murderous exaltation nor absolute certainly there.
Nevertheless, the perfectly opposed Texan theologian and the Oxonian atheist are both equally and keenly aware of the political consequences of religious belief. For Hitchens, it is ultimately conducive of a nightmarish universal imposition of power, something very like George Orwell’s “boot stamping on the human face forever.” For Hauerwas, it is the only hope a human has to know, love and live the truth. They would both agree that whatever else can be done with it, religion cannot be tamed.
This past spring, Hitchens and the conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza came to Notre Dame to perform a sort of atheist versus believer, “Dumb and Dumber,” dog-and-pony show. For this Wrestlemania match between fatuous agnosticism and complacent belief, Notre Dame, students with valid IDs were admitted free, but surprisingly many others paid $10 per seat. Had it only been Hitchens versus Hauerwas, the paying customers would have had their money’s worth. They would have heard an argument worth having.
Michael Garvey is Notre Dame’s assistant director of public information and communication. Email him at email@example.com.